Say you're a security screener at the airport. You notice a large group of people wearing white robes, speaking a strange language. The women have head scarves and the men long beards. They look nervous. One of them is holding a Koran. Another appears to be praying. What do you do?
According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), simply assume they're devout Muslims returning from the annual hajj in Mecca.
During the next few weeks, as many as 20,000 American Muslims will be returning to the United States from their pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. The TSA has ramped up cultural-awareness training for all 43,000 of its screeners. The goal: to remind screeners what to expect from devout Muslims and how to go about screening them so it's in concert with their religious beliefs.
Arab-American and Muslim-American leaders are applauding the effort. But they say it's part of a much-needed larger cultural and political conversation about Islam and Arab culture that can help the nation as it heals from the aftereffects of 9/11.
"Their efforts are a modest but important beginning," says Jack Shaheen, professor emeritus of mass communications at Southern Illinois University. "But until such time that we react to the vilification of and discrimination against Arabs in the same way we react to the vilification of others like Jews, blacks, and Hispanics, I'm not going to go dancing in the streets."
The 9/11 attacks ushered in a new era for the nation's Arabs and Muslims. Many of the almost 7 million who have lived in the country for years, if not generations, suddenly felt suspect simply because of their religion or the way they looked. A poll conducted last year by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that almost half of Americans have a negative view of Islam, even though 60 percent say they're not knowledgeable about it. More than 1 in 4 believes such statements as: "The Muslim religion teaches violence and hatred."
And it's at the airports, with the intense focus on security, that many American Muslims and Arab-Americans say they are more keenly aware of those misperceptions.
"After 9/11 things were bad, but they weren't as bad as they are now," says Rafat Arain, a dentist and mother of four from Brookfield, Wis.
Dr. Arain, who's lived in the US for 30 years, wears a head scarf known as the hijab. Every time she's flown in the past five years, she's been taken aside for extra screening, whether she was traveling to Europe, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia for the hajj. She believes, in part, that's because of her head covering. Immediately after 9/11, she says, she understood the extra scrutiny: The country had been traumatized. Now, she's simply come to expect it.
A year ago, when she was at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, she realized that time for one of her five daily prayers was running out. She went to a corner and quietly began to pray. A few minutes later, she noticed a security guard standing at her side.
"He didn't say anything to me. I finished my prayer, then I said 'Hi' to him and just walked away," she says. "But I could tell the people around were scared of me, and that's not good for us or good for our children."
In its hajj training refresher, the TSA is reminding officers that devout Muslims pray five times a day, and to expect it. The TSA also maintains that it does not in any way target individuals based on their background or religious affiliation.
"Our model looks only at behavior and in a way is the antidote to racial profiling," says Christopher White, a TSA spokesman.
He also says the TSA and other law-enforcement agencies are working hard to ensure that no one's civil rights are violated, which is why officials believed the hajj merited additional training.
"We expect a large number of pilgrims, and the hajj training involves providing our security officers reminders about how to screen individuals with head coverings [and] our policies concerning the transport of holy water and other Muslim religious practices, like praying," says Mr. White.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations applauds the special attention. It says it will be checking airports around the country during the next few weeks to ensure all goes smoothly.
But at the same time, the civil rights organization says it's seen an increase in reports about perceived discrimination against Muslims, or people who look Muslim. Many of the complaints concern incidents such as individuals being routinely detained for several hours at the airport and being asked intimate questions about their beliefs – whether they pray and at which mosque. "These are things that really aren't the business of security personnel," says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Muslim-American leaders say their goal is to reach out to all Americans so they can understand Islam as a religion of peace, respect for neighbors, and devotion to God.
"We're afraid of what we don't understand, and these people look different from us. They have different sounding names," says Nawar Shora, director of diversity and law-enforcement outreach at the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington. "In the post-9/11 era, there's an absolute need for the average Joe and the average Jane to be able to look at their neighbor that looks like one of those brown people and know that different isn't necessarily bad."